During game five of the Clippers-Warriors series earlier this week, basketball fans saw an impressive public outpouring of solidarity. The Clippers fans wore black, and stadium advertisements were covered in black as well. Fans chanted “We Are One” together during time outs. Countless signs read things like “this is our team” and “standing together against racism”.
There has been a Wikipedia’s worth (can we make that a measurement now?) of public condemnation of Donald Sterling and his horrible statements about race. People have penned endless debates about what we should do, and how we should feel, in the wake of a racist old man being shamed and then sanctioned by the NBA. I don’t have much to add to the discussion of Sterling and the debate over if he should be forced to sell based on a leaked tape.
But I do know that two Clippers fans have given us a logical and clear plan to make the solidarity and “our team” sentiments into something real and tangible: by crowdsourcing $600 million and buying the team. They’ve got a platform, they’ve started the journey, and they’re getting some good press.
Before you laugh or roll your eyes, let’s think this through — this plan could change sports in our country, and change it in a truly positive way. As it happens, I’ve been talking about this exact problem for years, but I’ve been looking at the ownership model of professional sports with an eye to how our Baltimore Orioles could be purchased and converted to a non-profit serving the city of Baltimore. That’s why Sam and I originally started Baltimorons, actually, and thus I can tell you that this makes sense, and that it can work. Sports teams can be community anchors, driving local economic development and giving back to the communities that support them with everything from ticket sales and merchandise to time, passion, and love.
Recently I’ve written a lot about anchor institutions, which I define as places that, due to infrastructure or mission, can’t get up and leave. Traditionally, anchor institutions are things like universities, hospitals, or community foundations. Right now, sports stadiums fit that definition, but sports teams don’t. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, much like the Staples Center isn’t going anywhere, but the Clippers could skip town as soon as their lease runs up, and we all know the troubled history that Baltimore has with Football-teams-that-must-not-be-named.
But why shouldn’t we expect more from these teams, given that they are already so much a part of our cultural fabric? The constant competition between cities to woo teams like the Sacramento Kings or the Milwaukee Bucks reminds me of other race-to-the-bottom type development strategies, in which cities bend over backwards to incentivize businesses to move, only to pay out more in benefits than they recoup in taxes.
We’ve been told again and again that sports teams provide huge financial benefits to their cities, but that’s not usually born out in the bottom line. Professional sports owners have been holding cities hostage, demanding millions and millions of dollars in taxpayer money for new stadiums and new perks to keep their team where they are, and causing millions and millions of tears when they pick up a team like the Seattle Supersonics and move them to Oklahoma City.
What’s more, this crazy plan to root a team in its community is not unprecedented. The Green Bay Packers are owned by a community foundation, and they have more league championships than any other team in the NFL. Many European soccer teams, including perennial best-team-on-earth contender Barcelona, are owned by the fans.
But where things get really interesting is when we ask why we have professional sports in the first place. The fact is that millions and millions of people put huge amounts of emotional energy into rooting for their favorite teams. If you are reading this, you know how much the Orioles matter to you, to your friends, and to your city. Yet, in the last 30-50 years, sports have become a money making tool, a speculative device that has allowed a select few people with huge bank accounts to make those bank accounts much much bigger. And all this money is being made by trafficking on a basic sentimentality and a deep sense of connection to place and to team. We’ve come to expect that these emotions are there to be toyed with: you can’t turn on a TV now without having your heart strings plucked by an ad featuring a man playing catch with his son, or with a group of kids coming together to triumph in competition.
The point of sports runs deeper than that. There is value in finding connection regardless of race, creed, or color in caring deeply about the Yankees, the Celtics, or the Wild. There is value in locking eyes with someone on the street because you happen to both be wearing an Orioles cap, and sharing a moment of recognition and comradery that lands in a communal place. I do, deeply and unapologetically, love the Orioles, but I am tired of that love being something to be monetized. I can’t even imagine how much worse it must be to be a Clippers fan, or even a Redskins fan.
The community-owned Clippers would not be softer, or expect handouts. They’ll still be trying to win the title, and still doing it against 29 other teams that are trying to out-brand, out-compete, and out-pay their players. Chris Paul will still be the best point guard in the game, and want to be paid as such. They will still need to scout, game plan, and work the salary cap. But instead of doing that to benefit one person, why not do it to benefit the community that supports the team?
The Clippers have moved on, both from Donald Sterling and from the series against the Warriors. But we as sports fans shouldn’t let everyone simply move on as well! In a month the Clips could not only be NBA champions, but also a team owned by the very people who will be dancing in the streets and celebrating their victory. And you don’t need Donald Sterling money to be a part of that community — with a just a small donation, you can channel all that outrage into making something positive happen. Click that link. Start taking sports back for the fans by supporting #BuyTheClippers, and be on the lookout for #BuyTheOrioles next year!